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Farmer-activist Meera leads a band of earth warriors in India

Dec 18, 2013

Bringing a balance in gender relations can really impact the way in which communities deal with climate change, writes Mehru Jaffer.

Gorakhpur: It is no longer possible for anyone to mess with Meera Chaudhury of Janakpur village in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Over time, this 50-year-old has been transformed. From being a loving mother-of-six and a hardworking farmer, she is now a seasoned union leader.

Meera is the backbone of the local branch of a powerful union of small and marginalised farmers that was formed in December 2000, following a state-wide farmers’ conference held in Lucknow. She has been associated with the group since 2003 and understands the challenges, both environmental and administrative faced by the farming community.

The first time that Janakpur took notice of this feisty woman was around five years ago when she led a movement against alcoholism ensuring that the age-old tradition of fermenting mahua fruit to make country liquor was eliminated. This drive earned her the title of ‘commander-in-chief’ of Meera's Sena, a group of rural women and men that raises its voice against all cultural, social and government policies that do more harm than good. Farmers’ rights, livelihood issues, especially rural women’s access to work and land, and gender equality, are priorities for Meera and her group.

Livelihood concerns have been dogging the local farming community for a few years now. Climate related risks in the form of floods and droughts that hit this region with frightening regularity have been responsible for this, as crop failures and loss of livestock become a part of life. And with the responsibility of running a household getting tougher with each passing year, the burden on women has increased manifold – they stretch themselves doing household chores and then looking for ways to supplement the family income.

Understanding the need of the hour, Meera’s Sena has taken it upon itself to ensure the implementation of livelihood schemes in their area and has, on occasion, even confronted officials who create unnecessary hurdles. Recalls Satyendra Kumar Tripathi, a farmers’ rights activist and project officer with the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (GEAG), a non government organisation that works with the local community and provides support to the farmers’ union, “On one occasion, Meera took the local bureaucracy head¬-on when she boldly asked an official, who was demanding a bribe, whether he hadn’t received his salary from the government that month.”

Of course, Meera’s brand of activism is centred on women. That’s because she knows that not only are they central to the home economy, they are the ones who are critical to the success of climate change adaption strategies, which can ensure a more stable future for the next generation. Gender inequality is what drives her to work tirelessly. “Both women and men are part of the same society but they do not enjoy the same rights,” feels the union leader, who has been a keen observer of women’s rights for over a decade.

Why is Meera seeking to change women’s fate? She is driven by the belief that while the problems faced by Indian women in general are multiple, those emanating out of acute poverty and anonymity have made life for rural women even worse. Till date there are no official records of women owning productive assets, especially agricultural land. Despite the fact that nearly 70 per cent of the female work force in the country is engaged in agriculture, only 10 per cent of women farmers actually own land. In Uttar Pradesh, the situation is even more alarming – just 6 per cent women farmers hold land in their name, less than 1 per cent have participated in government training programmes, a meagre 4 per cent have access to institutional credit and only 8 per cent have control over agricultural income.

Supporting her in her crusade is GEAG. “Awareness is the key to any social change,” believes Tripathi. Keeping in mind that gender is a social construct and that the position of women is quite unfavourable in these parts, most awareness campaigns initiated by the organisation have started off by addressing and promoting gender equality. This has meant a special focus on looking at the disadvantages women are up against in their own environment so that they can challenge the unfair practices themselves.

Meera herself has been a beneficiary of this approach, having been associated with GEAG for many years.  She says, “There was a time when I was afraid to even look at the men in my family. Today, I am ready to take on any man, including government officials.”

An incident that took place in Janakpur regarding the issuing of job cards under the government’s flagship rural livelihood guarantee scheme, the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), indicates how far she has travelled. “When the village head told me that under the MGNREGA, women were not entitled to a job card, I promptly called the toll free number of their office headquartered in New Delhi to report the matter,” she relates. She also went ahead and convened a meeting in the village to talk to people about their entitlements under the scheme -- how they have a right to demand 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a year, how every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work can benefit under the Act, and how when women in the village – who are usually paid less than men for working for an equal number of hours – they can insist on equal wages.

Bringing a balance in gender relations can really impact the way in which communities deal with climate change. But as Aditi Kapoor of Alternative Futures, a New Delhi-based development, research and communication group that is documenting gender-differentiated climate change impacts and adaptation interventions, has pointed out in the report, ‘Engendering the Climate for Change: Policies and Practices for Gender-just Adaptation’, “Transforming gender relations is not about ‘adding’ women to existing power structures and institutions but is about doing things differently to address women’s and men’s needs and concerns”.

That is why Meera's role in the formation of self help groups (SHGs) in Janakpur, home to 300 poverty stricken farmer families, as well as the neighbouring villages, is significant. The SHGs are a Ministry of Rural Development strategy to organise rural women into interest groups that concentrate on basic social issues, like health and hygiene awareness or anti-liquor mobilisation.

Women like Meera and her friend Putla Devi are the pillars of the SHG movement in Janakpur. Taking time off from tilling, sowing and harvesting -- common activities that local women are engaged in – they get down to other business like improving access to credit for poor women who are now perceived even by the mainstream financial sector as creditworthy. Women chiefly use their savings and credit to overcome climate change threats, a process that has benefited the larger community.

The other advantage of a vibrant SHG network is that the organisations working on adaptation interventions can make use of these groups to expand their work. They enable rural development specialists like Tripathi to get to know the local women and help them take up specific adaptive mechanisms like creating grain banks and resource centres for agricultural equipment.


Meera’s determined army is well on its way to building a more environment-friendly and gender just life for themselves, but much still needs to be done. As Tripathi concludes, “Together we are getting there, but of course there is still a long way to go.”

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